Having owned many Ford products over the last 20 years, including the 2005 Escape we currently own, we were curious to see what the evolution of Ford's quality of product would be, especially since the Flex sent to us sticked at just thirty five bucks shy of $44,000! FOURTY FOUR FREAKING THOUSAND DOLLARS! That my friends is a lot of jack, even in a time when the average car now costs $31,000. To be fair, before we start stacking on the options, the list on the Flex Limited was $34,705, There are several options which could have been omitted and not have been missed, which would have dropped the price significantly. We'll get to that after a bit.
The Flex has been out for a while now, and here in Southeast Michigan they are a fairly common site. That said, the Platinum White model with the chrome wheels which was dropped off looked really nice. The chrome accent moldings on the side with the dark tint windows also did a nice job of setting off what could have been overly monochromatic look on a two box design. This was the first solid color Flex that i have seen, all the others have been a solid body color with a white roof, ala the MINI. The visual appeal was immediate and positive, many of my neighbors were quite taken with it's looks.
For the interior the first quick look was also positive with the tan leather interior and the three rows of dual seats from front to back, and as everyone knows there are few things better in the world then that new car smell mixed with a decent grade of leather. Most of the materials in the interior were of a nice quality, save two items. The first was the fake wood trim. While it's general appearance is nice, it feels nothing more that an ultra thin veneer over plastic on the doors, dash and wheel. Also the trim around the center stack was just a bit to shiny plastic. It's nice, but plastic is plastic. Other materials were much nicer with a pleasant soft touch feel.
Sitting into the drivers seat the Flex feels like an extra large upscale Scion Xb. The materials are much nicer, and immediate feel that the vehicle is much larger than it really is. There is headroom enough for an NBA Power Forward, with room to spare, this was accentuated by the light colored interior and the multiple sunroofs. At 5'10", I felt like I had about three feet of headroom, which was nice since it gave an ultra airy feel to the car. The second had good leg room with seats that adjust fore and aft. The third row was also had plenty of room, I had plenty of leg space and could have rode back there for some time with no discomfort.
Now I call this a car, but maybe a tall wagon would be a better description. It's no SUV, as even with optional all wheel drive, a dirt road is about as far off road as you'd want to take this. It's hard to call this a crossover, what ever the hell that is, because the driving position feels more sedan level than SUV level. The design evokes the tall woody wagons of the 40's and 50's, intentionally I'm sure, and for whatever reason corporate marketers are afraid to call this what it is.
The Flex is powered by a 3.5 liter V6, and on paper the numbers look good, 262 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. It's not till you look a bit deeper that you find these numbers are a bit high in the power curve. The peak horsepower number doesn't occur till 6250 RPM, and more importantly the peak torque number doesn't occur till 4500 RPM. This is important for two reasons. Number one, in normal driving, you are rarely going to exceed 4000 RPM's and number two with a curb weight of 4500 lbs, the lack of low end grunt is noticeable. If you stick your foot into it and keep it there, the engine will rev quickly and get you to the meat of the power band where it feels snappy, but that's not going to help you much at the gas pump. The EPA rates the Flex at 17 city and 24 highway with 19 as combined mileage. Those numbers were fairly accurate as we got 20 in mixed driving and 25 on the highway. We didn't go out of the way to increase mileage, just drove what we considered "normal".
If you try and drive with a light foot you feel the weight of the vehicle, if you lean on it a bit it's better. Ford lists the 0-60 time of 9 seconds. Our hand timing gave us 8.22 seconds. The six speed automatic does a nice job and is pretty seamless, though occasionally coasting down from speed the downshifts are noticeable
Handling was surprising good, especially if you are used to, or coming from an SUV, even a smaller one. It handled on and off ramps nicely, understeer wasn't obnoxious, just enough to know it was there, quick lane changes didn't send the body occelating. Feedback through the steering wheel is about what you'd expect, there is some feedback, not as much as you might like, but probably what people who buy this type of vehicle are used to.
Down the road the EcoBoost motor is going to be offered for the Flex, and depending on the price, it might be something to consider. If you frequently are hauling people around or plan on towing with it, the 350 foot pounds of torque from 2000 to 5000 RPM's will be most appreciated. Ford lists the towing capacity of the Flex at 4500 lbs with the factory installed Class 3 hitch. I'd have to wonder how hard the motor would have to be working to pull that much weight, especially if you are in a hilly or mountainous area. Again the EcoBoost motor would most likely solve that issue.
Overall, the ride quality was good. Spring in Michigan means potholes, and after what I would call the first normal winter we've had in the Metro Detroit area in quite a while, the potholes look more like craters you'd find on the moon! Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, between Outer Drive and Oakwood is known to have the consistency of a washboard. The Flex handled all of it fine. Even some of the worst potholes didn't jar the chassis. There were no noticeable rattles, as much as we tried.
The Flex came standard with Microsoft's Sync system, on top of the our test car was equipped with the full monty Sat Nav system with backup camera. The Nav system also works with Sirius to give you live traffic and other goodies like telling you where the closest gas station is, or who has the cheapest gas, plus much more. The back up camera gave a nice wide angle with line guides. The line guides on this system were fixed though, on other systems we've seen them bend to help more in parallel parking situations. While the Sat Nav system was nice, and worked well, it clocks in at a hefty $2,375! While it's very nicely integrated into the Sync and touch screen set up, I might have to think about that one for a while if I'm buying with my own cash.
The Sync system worked well, it connected no problem with my cell phone, a USB key and an iPod. The 390 watt Sony system that comes standard in the Limited model had good overall sound, but didn't knock us out. We played Techno, Jazz, Alt Rock and Classical in the system, the best that I can say here is that at times the quality of the sound seemed inconsistent. I'll note that most of my music listening is done on a nice set of Grado headphones. Now cars are never the best platform for music, including this one, where so much glass is present. Over all nice system, but nothing special, which I might have been expecting at this price point.
Voice recognition was generally good but it had some problems with the names of the channels on Sirius. In the end it was easier to name the channel number rather than the name of the channel. Side note about Sirius. I'm guessing that the trial subscription ran out about halfway through our test. In trying to call Sirius customer service to find out what the story was, three different times we were on hold for over 10 minutes without ever talking to a live person, That is what is know by the cool kids these days as a FAIL.
The only issue that I had with Sync is that it's slow. It takes about a beat and a half longer than what feels natural to respond to voice commands. Voice recognition still has many issues even though people have been working with it for 20+ years now, and this is a first gen system, it holds promise, lets hope that software updates down the road can help it out.
A second toy that was included was the $1,995 DVD system with wireless headphones for the headrests. The middle row two seats each had their own screen and DVD player. Sound is about what you'd expect from wireless headphones and the images was certainly good enough on the screens. It will keep your kids happy for a couple hours on a long trip.
In between the two seats was a center console ($100 option) that included a refrigerator ($760 option). If you have kids, or you are an executive who's riding, not driving, I can see the fridge as nice option for trips, but for me, I can't see the value. Maybe in the next Bond flick after James saves the girl, he can get away in this and keep the Krug ready to go for you know what comes next!
Lastly we have the "Panoramic Vista Sunroof" at $1,495. Even though I've had sunroofs in several personal cars over the years, they never did much for me. In this car though I'm might spring my own cash for this system. It lets in a great deal of light, but also does a good job off not heating up the cabin like so many do. As we said earlier it feels like it adds an extra foot of headroom from the atmosphere it creates.
I met up with some friends while we had the car to go see The Watchmen and I took the opportunity to drive to get their thoughts on the Flex. One of my friends is a small business owner. His family has owned an insurance agency for over 60 years and they have some rental properties, he drives a 2006 Acura TL. My other friend is a VP at chemical company and drives an Infiniti. I give you this info just so you can judge their reactions as people who are used to better vehicles. Both were very impressed with the level of quality and features in the Flex. When I told them what it stickers for they both thought it was a fair price. Would either of them buy the Flex? No, but that has more to do with one being a bachelor and the other while being married, having no children. That being said they would both highly recommend it for their parents. Both had a sentiment that it was nice that a domestic car maker could put out a product like this, they both hoped though that it wasn't too late.
Overall I was impressed with the Flex. There are a few small things I'd like to see tweaked as we have mentioned, and perhaps a heated steering wheel option, that plastic and leather were COLD a couple mornings. Fit and finish were nice, The leather on the seats was more than just surface area leather. Body gaps were tight and uniform, and it passed one of my personally most important tests, the English Mastiff test! Some people judge cars on how they handle kids/family, I judge them on how well I can handle my dog!
On a scale of 1-10 I'm going to give the Flex an 8.5. My issues with it are power and weight, some interior materials and price. Someone told me to look at this car as a Range Rover on the cheap. Think about the high end quality of it's interior, now put that into a package that's more low key and can hide in this era where displays uber-luxury are frowned upon. If you come into this with that thought process then I think it succeeds. At the end of the day this is a vehicle that I can highly recommend and will put it up against anything in the world.